Kinsey Wilson is President of WordPress.com. Previously, he was a digital media executive at The New York Times, Executive Vice President and Chief Content Officer at National Public Radio, and Executive Editor at USA Today.
I think one of the things that’s probably going to be needed in the industry is some sort of institutional support, to help people understand how to put the fundamentals of the business together, how to take these lessons and build on them, and figure out what the relationship is between the editorial side and the business side. ... I’m involved in a project to try to provide a sort of cost-effective technological foundation for small start-ups, and small digital news organizations, because they have historically struggled with technology. But there’s a layer above that, which is essentially the expertise that you need to be able to run those systems effectively, and to know what knobs and dials to turn, and what levers to pull, and so forth. That is lacking as well. Both are sort of probably essential foundations before we’re going to see consistent models in marriage that are sustainable over time.
Part of what we came to understand, I think very profoundly, in public radio was that the quality of the content was critical, but so was the relationship with the listener. And the way that got captured was sort of talking about both head and heart. That people had to feel both a connection intellectually, but also sort of had to feel it in their heart, if they were going to be likely to contribute. And I think that is equally applicable at the local level. I mean, that kind of membership support was in fact local. You know, public radio’s set up so that membership is collected by local member stations, not by the national organization. And that sort of direct connection, and sense of affinity, was really important to their being able to raise the kind of money they did.
If you’re going to establish a relationship with the readers, there are two fundamentals that are sort of inescapable. One is that you have to have some sort of regular daily presence in their lives. So you have to be habit forming. You need to have a reason for people to engage with you every single day, so that you’re top of mind, and so that they have an awareness of the role that you play in the community. … The other is, you really need to let people know what you stand for. And first and foremost in the journalism that you produce, but also as a branding exercise. So, if people are going to pay you money for what you do ... it’s less of a transactional relationship. Probably a very limited number of people are actually willing to pay in a very transactional way for a particular piece of news. Rather, they are more likely to pay, because you embody a set of values that they feel are important, because you represent a certain kind of civic awareness, or provide a certain level of accountability over public officials and large institutions in a community.
Events can be an important sort of tangible manifestation of what a news organization is, and what it stands for, and an opportunity for at least your most passionate readers to connect with you. And so it may have value in supporting subscription revenue more than it does in direct revenue.
My feeling is that many of the startups that have been out there have either been overweighted on the editorial side, or overweighted on the business side, and haven’t had a strong dynamic between the two. And I think that’s, you know, it takes a farsighted, and really talented publisher to be able to put both of those pieces together, and to get the right editors, or the right business folks working in tandem, and aligned around a strategy.
What I think you’re starting to see is the profound tension between having to produce a printed newspaper, which was designed around advertising, was meant to be relatively shallow, very broad, encompassing lots of different topics, and be of general interest to a community, versus an emerging business model that is geared to developing strong lasting relationships with members and subscribers. That requires not only a different approach to the business, but ... a kind of different approach to the journalism. And it probably means being much more selective about the kinds of things you cover, making sure that your coverage is absolutely hands down the best, that it’s indispensable to the community, not simply that it skims the surface.
I think one of the questions that gets perhaps overlooked in all of this is, inevitably we’re in a period of transition. The question really is, how much runway do publications need in order to get established, and to get to a place where a new model emerges? And that I think is a big unknown.